Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to End a War, Eisenhower’s Way

by Jean Edward Smith
The New York Times
April 11, 2009

President Obama’s unscheduled visit to Iraq suggests a president determined to see a war zone first hand and draw his own conclusions. Lincoln availed himself of that opportunity during the Civil War, but the most pertinent example may be Dwight D. Eisenhower, who toured the battlefront in Korea shortly before his inauguration. Ike had pledged to go to Korea if elected, and most voters assumed that the supreme commander — who had so effectively defeated the German Wehrmacht — would quickly dispatch the North Koreans and their Chinese allies.

Eisenhower may have thought that as well. Republican campaign rhetoric envisaged a unified Korea brought together by force of arms, if necessary, to insure “the future stability of the continent of Asia.” South Korean president Syngman Rhee shared that view, as did many in the nation’s foreign policy establishment.

Ike spent three days in Korea. He conferred with his old friends, Gen. Mark Clark and Gen. James Van Fleet, talked to division and regimental commanders, and ate C-rations at the front with G.I.’s from the 15th Infantry — Eisenhower’s old regiment. Most significantly, he flew along the battle line, roughly the 38th Parallel, in an artillery observation plane (the military equivalent of a Piper Cub) for a good look at the terrain. It was rocky, mountainous and forbidding — bristling with Chinese gun emplacements and heavily fortified. It reminded him of Tunisia during World War II, where an untested American Army had received its first comeuppance. “It was obvious that any frontal attack would present great difficulties,” said Ike afterwards.

Eisenhower drew the logical conclusion. “Small attacks on small hills would not win this war.” More important, “we could not stand forever on a static front and continue to accept casualties without any visible result.”

He returned to the United States determined to make peace. Truce negotiations had been launched in Korea 18 months earlier, but there had been no ceasefire. Casualties continued to mount. American losses (killed, wounded, and missing) stood at 75,000 in July 1951 when the truce talks began. They would eventually rise to 150,000, including an additional 12,000 dead, because of American insistence on fighting while the negotiations dragged on. To Ike, that was unconscionable. “We cannot tolerate the continuation of the Korean conflict,” he told his most intimate advisers en route home. “The United States will have to break this deadlock.”

Eisenhower played his cards close to his chest. He initiated a build-up of American forces in the region, ordered minor offensive actions, and instructed General Clark to step up the exchange of prisoners with the North.

In early April 1953 the Communists signaled they were ready to negotiate in earnest. Stalin had recently died and the new Soviet leadership apparently wanted to clear the table. Korea was one of several issues they sought to untangle. At a meeting of the National Security Council on April 8, Eisenhower announced his decision to agree to an armistice that would leave a divided Korea. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Defense Secretary Charles Wilson were strongly opposed. It was Dulles’s view that the Chinese had to be given “one hell of a licking” in order to maintain American credibility.

Eisenhower rejected the argument. “If Mr. Dulles and all his sophisticated advisers really mean that they cannot talk peace seriously, then I’m in the wrong pew,” he told an aide afterward. “Now either we cut out all this fooling around and make a serious bid for peace — or we forget the whole thing.”

One week later, speaking before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Eisenhower made his intentions public. In what many regard as the most important foreign policy address of his presidency, Ike blew the whistle on those who sought to win the cold war militarily. “Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed….”

On the other hand, “A world that begins to witness the rebirth of trust among nations can find its way to a peace that is neither partial nor punitive….The first great step along this way must be the conclusion of an honorable armistice in Korea.”

After Ike’s pronouncement peace negotiations at Panmunjom picked up speed. President Rhee attempted to derail the talks, but Eisenhower brought him to heel. If the South Korean government did not accept the armistice, said Ike, he would withdraw all American forces from the peninsula, discontinue military aid to the South Korean Army, and terminate all financial assistance. Rhee backed down.

On July 26, 1953 the truce was signed. Korea was divided along the existing battle line, roughly the 38th Parallel, and the guns went silent. Republicans on Capitol Hill were scathing in their criticism. Senator William Jenner of Indiana called the armistice the “last tribute to appeasement.” House Speaker Joe Martin complained that Ike had not sought victory. Some suggested that if President Truman had agreed to the terms Eisenhower accepted he would have been impeached.

Eisenhower ignored the criticism. “The war is over,” he told press secretary James Hagerty. “I hope my son is going to come home soon.”

Like President Obama, Eisenhower was an incrementalist who preferred to move gradually, often invisibly, within an existing policy framework. But on the question of war and peace, his views were categorical. He rejected the concept of limited war, and believed that American troops should never be sent into battle unless national survival was at stake.

After Eisenhower made peace in Korea, not one American serviceman was killed in action during the remaining seven and a half years of his presidency. No American president since Ike can make that claim.

In bringing peace to Korea — a peace that has endured for over fifty years — Eisenhower asserted his personal authority as commander in chief. Perhaps only a five-star general could ignore his party’s old guard and overrule the country’s national security establishment, almost all of whom believed that military victory in Korea was essential. But Ike was an experienced card player. He could recognize a losing hand when he saw it, and he knew when to fold his cards. Only President Obama knows what he saw in Iraq, and only he can decide whether his hand should be folded.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


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